The Free Burying Ground of Georgetown


“An aged woman named Margaret Curran was found in a very destitute condition in a hovel on Brick Hill. She was taken to the workhouse, and that night was relieved of further suffering by death.” (Georgetown Courier, October 12, 1867)


In October of 1867, Georgetown undertaker Joseph Birch recorded one pauper burial in his journal. In the course of several decades he had about a hundred entries that read simply: child, German man, Irish child, sailor, drowned woman, Mary, man at lime kiln, and so on.  (Joseph F. Birch & Sons Papers, Special Collections, George Washington University)

One of the places Joseph Birch buried paupers was in the “free burying ground” on the grounds of the Georgetown Poorhouse, which was built on a parcel that included lots 259 and 260 in Beatty & Hawkins’ Addition to Georgetown, and part of Pretty Prospects, sold to the Corporation of Georgetown by Elisha W. Williams in 1830. (This land now divided between the Naval Observatory and Guy Mason Recreation Center.)


“That a part of the Poor House is to be a free burying ground under direction of the Trustees, with further direction that no slave or free black shall be buried there if he leaves sufficient property to pay for interment without permission of the mayor, and a reasonable price fixed by the mayor to be asked.” (Georgetown Ordinances, November 3, 1832)


Young (John) – annointed on the 13th must have died about this date – was buried without notice given to us, in the town free ground – cholera

(September 21, 1833)


Elizabeth Jones, 80, a widow at the Poor House, “buried in the Grave Yard at the Poor House”.

(August 30, 1834)


John Collins, was “buried in the grave yard attached to the Poor House”.

(September 11, 1834)


John, 9 days old, son of Thomas Davis, and of Sarah Ann Posey, of Charles County

Sarah Ann Posey, age 22, daughter of Henry Posey and of Elizabeth Davis, his wife, from Charles County, Maryland;

in the free ground of the Corporation.

(December 28 and 30, 1835)


(Deaths, Holy Trinity Church Congregation, Georgetown, D.C., Beginning on the 8th of December 1818,  Special Collections, Georgetown University)


 Joseph Birch charged Georgetown $8 for the coffin of a pauper. (Georgetown Ordinances, July 21, 1860)

J.J. McQuillan paid $60 for burying paupers who died of smallpox in January-March, 1862. (Georgetown Ordinances, May 10, 1862)

Twenty coffins, at five dollars or less each, were always to be kept on hand at the Poor and Work House for the burial of deceased paupers. (Georgetown Ordinances, January 24, 1863)


The Georgetown Poor House closed in 1875, but it seems that Georgetown undertaker Joseph Birch buried at least one pauper there after that: “Frederick Rush, at the Industrial Home School”. (January 9, 1885)


The Industrial Home School succeeded the Georgetown Poor House in 1875. The District took over Industrial Home School in 1896. The first thorough DC Engineer records date to 1897, and the first mention of the Industrial Home School is in 1898. The Engineer file index makes no mention of a burial ground.

The Industrial Home School was razed in 1954; some of its grounds are now in the Naval Observatory, and the rest went to create the Guy Mason Recreational Center.

Where would the burial ground have been? It could have been destroyed when the Guy Mason building was built (1902), or when the baseball field was graded (1954?); or it could still be on the grounds of the Naval Observatory. There is no record of its ever having been removed.

An unknown number of the burials in the free burying ground may have been removed by grave robbers, who provided the cadavers for the training of young surgeons (and prevented overcrowding in the city’s Potter’s Fields). In 1877 it was officially stated that a pauper’s body in Washington was very likely to be stolen, “or rather taken, (for there was no effort to protect it) almost before it was cold.”  (Annual Report to the Commissioners of the District, 1877, p.209)

(A partial list of news stories on the subject: “The Grave Robber,” Evening Critic, January 24th, 1883; “The Theft of Shaw’s Cadaver,” Evening Star, January 24th, 1883; “Raising the Dead: A Physician’s Glib Discourse on the Ghastly Subject,” Washington Post, April 1, 1883; “The Resurrectionist King,” Washington Post, May 19th, 1884; “How to Rob A Grave,” National Republican, May 19th, 1884; “The Ghoul at Work,” Evening Critic, May 19th, 1884; “A King Among Ghouls,” Washington Post, November 6th, 1887)




 Carlton Fletcher

 The citation and acknowledgement of my research is greatly appreciated.

All rights reserved.


 Questions and corrections may be directed to


The support of the Advisory Neighborhood Council (3B) is gratefully acknowledged.